A glance at Kraków

By virtue of the incorporation charter of 5 June 1257, duke Bolesław the Chaste revived the city devastated after the Mongol invasion and determined its shape, which was preserved for centuries.
How did Kraków develop, based on the Magdeburg Law? How did its landmark buildings change? Finally, what was the image of the city held by travellers, drawers and cartographers? The vistas of Kraków stored in museums and archives can drop some hints. Through our intermediary, a wider audience can admire them. We would like to call particular attention to a few of our exhibits about Kraków.

Bolesław the Chaste, the Duke of Kraków and Sandomierz, announced the incorporation charter for Kraków (the document is kept in the State Archives in Kraków), together with his wife Kinga and mother Grzymisława, during a general assembly (traditionally referred to as wiec in Polish) at Kopernia near Pińczów. It happened on 5 June 1257, and the duke made it clear that (...) “we found this city on the same law on which the city of Wrocław was founded, so that not the things taking place therein should happen, but the ones that according to the law and pattern of the city of Magdeburg ought to be amended, so that if there should to be any doubt about them in the future, the doubters may refer to the written law”[1]. Incorporation of the Magdeburg Law was associated with the necessity to observe certain codified rules regarding the functioning of the city. Kraków was supposed to be a separate commune with its own self-government and judiciary, and free people were supposed to live there.

The Magdeburg Law also imposed a specific spatial arrangement which was to be introduced in the city, and regulated the amount of rent paid by the residents to the lord. Such clear-cut rules (and an offer of at least several years of a rent-free period) encouraged settlers to come, and thanks to them, crafts and trade were supposed to develop in the city.

Gedko Stilvoyt, Dethmar Wolk and Jakub of Nysa, who became vogts, undertook the task of organising life in Kraków during its reconstruction. For their work, they received high remuneration and their power was hereditary. They made sure that a court of law operated in the city, that the aldermen could convene, and brought new inhabitants to the Vistula banks – these came from Silesia and Germany, because the ruler and nobles did not want to allow the local population to settle in Kraków, as it would depopulate the estates already destroyed by invasions and leave them deserted. In Kraków before 1257, the centre of the city’s life was considered to be Plac Wszystkich Świętych [All Saints Square]. Then, the vogts designed a grand new Market Square, the shape of which has been preserved till this day, and set out a grid of streets exiting the main square and forming quarters. Similar market squares were created in adjacent settlements.

However, it is only from modern visualisations that we can learn what the newly incorporated and built-up Kraków looked like, because no image of the city from those times has survived. Yet, we know for certain that it was flourishing. Over the next centuries, settlers from different parts of Europe came here, speaking Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Russian, Armenian, Jewish, Italian, German and thanks to their presence, the city – which after the period of fragmentation became the capital of the Kingdom – developed, thrived and gained more diversity.


Woodcut View of Kraków from the north, 1493, Historical Museum of the City of Kraków, public domain
Digitalisation: HMCK, Sharing and digitalisation of the 2D collections project


The oldest known depiction of Kraków (and also of Kazimierz and Kleparz incorporated as separate settlements) is a coloured woodcut dating from 1493. It was placed in Liber cronicarum by Hartmann Schedel, a unique historical and geographical atlas, which also contained a detailed description of the city. The reliable rendition of Cracovian topography is striking. It is possible to identify the most important buildings (St. Mary’s Basilica, Town Hall, Franciscan Church, Kanonicza street), but there is no way of telling how accurately their appearance and features were presented. As a result, viewers may have the impression that they are dealing with a partially phantasy panorama of a city, but in reality, it is Kraków!

More realistic representations of Kraków and the surrounding area come from the 1st half of the 17th century. These are the panoramas from the sixth volume of Civitates Orbis Terrarum (tables 43 and 44) by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg, which was published in Cologne in 1617. The first of the tables shows a view of the city from the northwest; the attention of the viewers is drawn particularly to Early baroque buildings erected thanks to the patronage of the king, who rebuilt, among others, the Wawel Castle destroyed by fires. Interestingly, the Saint Peter and Paul church, which was then being built, was presented as a Gothic church, while it never was one. In the foreground, we can discern the retinue of Sigismund III Vasa setting out from the Wawel Castle towards Łobzów, where the royal residence was then located.

Copperplate engraving Panoramic view of Kraków from nort west by Georg Houfnagel, Historical Museum of the City of Kraków, public domain
Digitalisation: HMCK, Sharing and digitalisation of the 2D collections project

Another one of the above-mentioned panoramas in Civitates Orbis Terrarum merits special attention. For the first time, Kraków was recorded visually as seen from the south, from the side of the Krakus Mound. The woodcut shows the most characteristic urban buildings, including the St. Mary’s Basilica, the Wawel Castle, and the adjacent, somewhat chaotically built-up Kazimierz, with the Corpus Christi Church. In the foreground, the figures of men in characteristic attire catch the eye.

Copperplate engraving View of Kraków from the south, from the Krakus MoundHistorical Museum of the City of Kraków, public domain
Digitalisation: HMCK, Sharing and digitalisation of the 2D collections project

It is worth saying that in the Civitates Orbis Terrarum 12 views of Polish cities were presented, with only Kraków shown in two woodcuts. At that time, the city was still symbolically the capital of the country, even though formally it had ceased to be such. From 1596, Sigismund III often stayed outside his seat, and on May 28, 1609 he abandoned it definitively and settled in Warsaw. However, Kraków did not lose its glory – in both engravings, we can see the city where baroque buildings began to be erected. Unfortunately, it survived in this form only for a few decades before it was ruined and destroyed during the Swedish Deluge between 1655–1657.

Painting View of Kraków’s north fortification by Józef Brodowski, Museum of the City of Kraków, public domain.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, Małopolska’s Virtual Museums project

In the painting by Józef Brodowski, Kraków had already gone through the harsh times of wars and partitions, but still we can notice many remnants from medieval times. In 1823, the painter presented the most characteristic, northern part of Cracovian defensive walls – the Barbican, connected with the Florian Gate and the towers (from the left): Karczmarzy [Innkeepers’], Pasamoników [Haberdashers’], Stolarska [Carpenters’] and Ciesielska [Joiners’]. At that time, the former earthen ramparts already served as a strolling venue for the people of Kraków. The painter also showed city residents, representatives of all estates of the realm: peasants in a wedding procession, aristocrats and nobility in carriages, and members of the Militia of the Free City of Kraków.

Preserved on the canvases of paintings, the images of the old – mostly not preserved to this day – fortifications of Kraków from the post-incorporation era are invaluable for lovers of the city’s history. In the 19th century, by imperial decrees or upon the initiative of local authorities, introducing order into the city commenced; old, ruined buildings which were not fulfilling their function, were demolished. Thus, most of the city’s fortifications were pulled down, and the Planty park was established in their stead. Thanks to the persistence of senator Feliks Radwański, it was only possible to save the northern fragment – exactly the one with the Barbican, Florian Gate and three towers. Allegedly, Radwański argued that the old walls protected the surrounding houses against cold winds and their inhabitants from diseases.

The next fragment of the defensive walls, shortly before their demolition, can be seen in the picture Widok Bramy Mikołajskiej [The View of St. Nicholas’ Gate] by Teodor Baltazar Stachowicz, who, like his father Michał, became famous for numerous images of 19th-century Kraków.

Painting View of Mikołajska’s Gate by Teodor Baltazar Stachowicz, Museum of the City of Kraków, public domain.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, Małopolska’s Virtual Museums project

In the 1st half of the 19th century, the same fate as that of the pulled down city’s walls befell neglected houses and ruined churches – for example, the All Saints church and the Renaissance town hall standing on the Market Square from the times of incorporation, of which only the tower and cavernous cellars remain today. Another canvas by Stachowicz in our collection offers a glimpse at what the demolished building looked like. Interestingly, it was created 20 years after the destruction of the Town Hall, so one can gather that the painter most likely used his father’s sketches and drawings.

Painting City Hall north view by Teodor Baltazar StachowiczMuseum of the City of Kraków, public domain.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, Małopolska’s Virtual Museums project

In the 2nd half of the 19th century, Kraków is expanding, modernising and becoming more beautiful. It also benefits from the privileges of the Galician autonomy and becomes a very important city for Polish culture and art: Poles from three partitions arrive in it to see renovated historical monuments, participate in jubilees, celebrations of national holidays or to stop for a moment along the route to Polish mountain resorts. Academies are developing and artists are settling here.

One of them was Julian Fałat, a graduate of the Kraków School of Fine Arts (Academy of Fine Arts since 1900), who later helmed the university. A painter of winter and hunting landscapes, he also frequently painted cities. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, he was eager to create views of Kraków from the window or balcony of his studio in the Main Building of the Academy of Fine Arts – the paintings usually depicted a narrow, vertical section of the urban landscape or panorama. The master’s atelier overlooked a fragment of the preserved defensive walls with the Florian Gate and towers and the Arsenal, and in the background, one could discern the towers of St. Mary’s Basilica. We also see them against the backdrop of the autumn sky, surrounded by trees – in a 1903 self-portrait kept at the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków. Fałat, probably the most famous Polish watercolourist, this time decided to paint it with oil paints.

Painting Self-portrait against the view of Kraków of Julian Fałat, Museum of the City of Kraków, public domain. Digitalisation: RDW MIC, Małopolska’s Virtual Museums project

Kraków is not only a city often painted, but also photographed since the 19th century. The photographers, recording the reality of Nowa Huta, which joined the city in the 1950s, ventured outside the confines of Kraków from its incorporation beginnings. Many of these photos were taken by Wiesław Tomaszkiewicz, who, for example, in the late 1960s captured a family watching how the Nowa Huta estate was being built.


Block of flats being constructed — Kraków, Nowa Huta, photo by Wiesław Tomaszkiewicz, Museum of Photography in Kraków© all rights reserved, MuFo.
Digitalisation: Museum of Photography in Kraków

The landmarks of Nowa Huta – the Ludowy Theater or the architecturally distinctive church in Mistrzejowice – were recorded by other chroniclers of the city’s life, Henryk Hermanowicz and Stanisław Gawliński.

On the left: Ludowy Theatre, photo by Henryk Hermanowicz, Museum of the City of Kraków© all rights reserved, HMK. 
On the right: Church in Mistrzejowice, photo by Stanisław Gawliński, Museum of the City of Kraków© all rights reserved, HMK.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, Małopolska’s Virtual Museums project

Hermanowicz is also the photographer of the already well-known original photo of sheaves of grain against the background of the steelworks complex. Somewhat like a city, but not quite a city... The photographer shows an unusual view of the city’s suburbs, which arose around the steelworks complex, on agricultural lands taken away from former residents; it records the image of a new district with a short history – in a way being in opposition to the centre of Kraków founded in the Middle Ages.

Sheaves of corn against the steelworks plant, photo by Henryk Hermanowicz, Museum of the City of Kraków© all rights reserved, HMK.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, Małopolska’s Virtual Museums project

When Mieczysław Hermanowicz immortalised the paradoxes of the urban landscape, Jan Motyka did not avoid photographic experiments. In his photos – using photomontage and various photographic techniques – he transformed the well-known views and buildings of Kraków. As part of the Architecture of Kraków series, he depicted the Sukiennice [Cloth Hall] using the pseudosolarison technique, or the former Kazimierz Town Hall on Wolnica Square. His footsteps also led to the Wawel hill, where the camera view, well-known from postcards and guidebooks, gained originality, thanks to the same technique.

Jan Motyka: Kraków’s architecture. City Hall at Wolnica Square, Kraków’s architecture. The Cloth Hall in Kraków, Wawel: Cathedral's courtyard, Museum of Photography in Kraków© all rights reserved, MuFo.
Digitalisation: Museum of Photography in Kraków

The most interesting work by Jan Motyka in our collection from the above-mentioned series is a processed photograph of the Market Square. It was as if filtered through newspaper columns with cultural news, which adds dynamics to the well-known urban landscape. Photomontage: the white surface of the Main Square reminds us that the Market Square staked out by the village mayors brought by Bolesław the Chaste, Kinga and Grzymisława, remained the most important and most populous square of the city, the centre of its life for centuries.


Museum of Photography in Kraków© all rights reserved, MuFo.
Digitalisation: Museum of Photography in Kraków


Elaborated by Marta Dvořák (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums), 
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.


[1] Quote translated by Bożena Wyrozumska following: Jan. M. Małecki, Historia Krakowa dla każdego, Kraków 2007.